In Johnson’s case, what he wanted was a decent life for everybody. Growing up dirt poor in Texas, picking cotton and later becoming a schoolteacher, Johnson tried everything to release his students from poverty.
Johnson had a knack for both power and leadership. He knew how to accumulate power. He also wanted to change the world, and in civil rights and the War on Poverty, he did change it.
- He used any means. To gain power, Johnson cozied up to the Southerners in power, which required opposing civil rights. So, he voted against every civil rights bill for 20 years. Once in power himself, however, Johnson’s first act was to pass a civil rights bill.
Johnson befriended powerful Southerners by becoming a “professional son” to lonely old politicos in high places, working overtime with them and inviting them to meals.
- He was absolutely clear-eyed: no delusions. Johnson never fooled himself on vote counts. He knew that liberals couldn’t win everything they wanted on civil rights, so he pushed for voting rights, figuring that the law could be expanded later.
- He found common ground. After spending months in 1957 trying to move a civil rights bill, Johnson went home. There, he reasoned that, although he could never win Southerners’ votes, he could win Westerners’… if he could help them build a dam they wanted. Johnson threw himself into building the dam, trading it for their votes supporting the Voting Rights Act.
—Adapted from “Lessons in Power: Lyndon Johnson Revealed,” Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review.